Is irrigation still a man’s world?

An account on women’s participation in PIM (Participatory Irrigation Management)

Representational Image. Courtesy: SPS Community Media

Even though women make up a significant proportion of the farmers in India, mainstreaming gender concerns in the domain of irrigation in agriculture seems to be a vision of a distant future. Involving women in irrigation projects is popularly equated with increasing their numbers in the Water User Associations (WUAs), and as many studies point out, their participation has largely remained tokenistic. Women’s participation and representation have continued to remain skewed in irrigation management and various other domains of natural resource management. Yet one can see that women’s relationship with water runs deep as in a majority of households the collection of drinking water is still considered a woman’s duty. To understand the gender realities in irrigation, and make sense of women’s participation on ground, I undertook my fieldwork, in one of the states implementing the Participatory Irrigation Management Act- Madhya Pradesh.

A brief history of PIM

The tragedy of irrigation in India is that trillions of litres of water stored in our large dams have not reached the farmers for whom they are meant. Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) attempts to address this challenge of last mile connectivity in irrigation. In this approach, farmers get together to manage the water resources in their part of the command area in an equitable and sustainable manner. This concept gained currency with its inclusion in the National Water Policy in 1987. Some civil society organizations have been at the forefront of work relating to PIM and have successfully pioneered many action research programmes around the formation of WUAs. The first state to implement the PIM Act was Andhra Pradesh, followed by Madhya Pradesh. Both these acts recognize women as ‘landowners’ thereby legitimate ‘water users’ in the Water User Association, akin to men. But is it a visible reality?

In the picture: Jobat Dam and Maan Dam

I visited six villages falling in the command area Jobat and Maan dam, in Kukshi and Manawar districts of Madhya Pradesh. Jobat dam, a medium irrigation project has a command area of 9848 hectares covering 2840 families, 54 % of which belong to the tribal community. The Maan Dam, a major irrigation project, has a command area of 15, 000 hectares, covering about 7910 families, 87% of which belong to the tribal community. The tribal community inhabiting these areas are the Bhilalas and the Bhils.

Following the PIM Act of 1998 of the Government of MP, 10 Water User Associations (WUAs) for the two dams were formed in 2008. Each WUA in the Jobat command area consists of a President and three members, and this committee is recognized as the Territory Committee (TC); there are no women members in any of the WUAs in this area. The WUA for Maan dam consists of a President and seven members, and this committee is recognized as the territory committee (TC). There was only one woman member in the TC, in one of the 10 WUAs.

Involvement of Women in PIM

Interacting with the women on their participation in the WUA and canal irrigation matters prompted a common reply. Most of them replied saying that WUA is not a woman’s domain. Some women even laughed at the question and compared it to asking a man to do housework. But Sarita Devi, a middle-aged woman in the group replied, “Hum toh jana chahte hain meeting me par koi bulata he nahi” (We want to be part of WUA meetings but no one asks or invites us). Another woman from the group said, “Mahila log ka naam he nahi likhte election me toh meeting me kahan se jaenge?” (Women are neither nominated or elected, how can they then attend WUA meetings?)

Involvement of women in decisions and activities of WUA was found to be very low, with women having no voice in matters related to water distribution, water pricing, maintenance of canal networks, and taking punitive action on those violating rules. Thus, it appears that women often get excluded as they are not considered capable in this domain by men, which in turn increases the knowledge gap. Irrigating at night is also considered particularly difficult for women, because of social norms which prevent them from going out at night. “At times, we have to go to far-off places when the gate opens to check how much water is coming, there are also quarrels over water. How will women manage all this? How will they go at night to far-off places?”, said one of the WUAs’ President.

Contrary to the prevailing belief that irrigation is not a woman’s business, some accounts highlighted that an active WUA with women representation is of paramount importance. Anand Singh Bhai, ex-President of one of the visited WUAs said, “Mahila aaengi toh jhagde kam honge aur jo paani ki chori hoti hai voh bhi. Mahila paani ki dekh-rekh karegi toh mard log jhagda nahi karenge paani ke liye” (If women are involved then quarrels over water are likely to subside, and the over-use of water will also decrease. Men won’t fight for water if women are involved in the management).

In her research, Margreet Zwarteveen, Professor, Water Governance at the Institute for Water Education (IHE), Delft, highlights how beginning with colonial times and continuing to the present, irrigation has been an important site for the construction of gendered power and hegemonic masculinities. Women often do not have a significant role or voice in decision-making and hence they do not have as many avenues for influencing choices about the mobilisation of resources for maintenance or about water distribution as men do.

Despite women spending about the same number of hours as men on the agricultural land, and helping in most of the field tasks, they are not considered as eligible enough to be part of a WUA. The Gujarat State Irrigation Act completely ignores women and only considers men to be worthy of being a part of the WUA. Women do not have individual land ownership rights which thereby lead to them being not recognized as water users. In the MP State Irrigation Act, women are recognized as joint landholders with their husbands, thus making them ‘water users’ and credible members of a WUA. Yet, the ground reality is that women participation is missing. Because of the patriarchal socio-cultural context and institutional bias, they are mostly at the periphery in decision making. Hence, legal provisions in PIM acts do not automatically translate into women’s participation on-ground. It should be ensured that the canal management is gender inclusive, which is functional on ground, not just on paper. One way of achieving this could be through mobilisation and collectivization of women, focussed towards developing a better understanding around canal water management. It can go a long way in instilling confidence in them and motivate them to challenge oppressive social norms. This could significantly increase their bargaining power with men, and help them partake in decisions pertaining to canals that water their fields.

Views are personal

About the author:

An ardent feminist at heart, Shruti is a Masters graduate in Water Science and Policy from Shiv Nadar University. Her main interests include the social dimensions of water and water policy.

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